Ken Tilsen, a champion of justice for all, dies at 85

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2013 - 10:23 PM

Local attorney fought for civil and personal rights over a period of decades, was mentor to many.

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Ken Tilsen in 2007

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Jm - Star Tribune

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Civil rights attorney Ken Tilsen waged a lifelong battle on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden.

He defended American Indian Movement followers during the Wounded Knee occupation, draft resisters during the Vietnam War, striking union workers, farmers opposed to high-voltage power lines, protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention and myriad others at odds with the establishment.

Tilsen, 85, died Sunday night at his home in Hudson, Wis. He had congestive heart failure and other health problems and had been in hospice care for a few months, family members and friends said.

“If you’d ask him, he’d say, ‘I’m 85 years old and the parts are wearing out,’ ” his son David said Monday.

St. Paul attorney Bill Tilton said Tilsen was a surrogate father and a mentor for more than four decades.

“He taught me so much,” Tilton said. “He taught me how to die, among other things. He taught me how to practice law, how to be a member of the community, how to be a part of the issues of the day.”

Tilsen was “intimately involved in most of the cutting-edge social issues of the last half of the 20th century,” Tilton said. “And he was generally on the right side. He was all-in. He didn’t question whether he was going to make money, whether it was popular.”

Tilsen probably is best known for helping to defend more than 200 American Indians who took over the town of Wounded Knee on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation for 73 days in 1973 and for defending the “Minnesota Eight” draft resisters during the Vietnam War. But his influence was felt all the way from the early civil rights movement, to the 2008 Republican National Convention protesters, to those who opposed a new Vikings stadium.

He was probably proudest of the people he had mentored during his six-plus-decade career — lawyers and nonlawyers alike, David Tilsen said.

The elder Tilsen was a North Dakotan by birth. His family settled in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul before he started first grade. He graduated in 1945 from Marshall High School and served in the Navy aboard the destroyer escort Raymond.

He met his wife, Rachel Le Sueur, daughter of author/activist Meridel Le Sueur, in 1947 at a protest to integrate St. Paul’s old Prom Ballroom. By the time he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1950, the first two of their five children had been born. She died in 1998.

Tilsen’s work landed him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1964, where he made headlines by refusing to answer questions.

He joined what is now the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm and managed its St. Paul office before striking out on his own in the mid-1960s.

The first case he considered significant enough to include in papers he gave to the Minnesota Historical Society involved defending black leaders who walked into a St. Paul sewer ditch and disrupted a construction project because it employed whites only.

Later he defended activists protesting farm foreclosures, members of the Honeywell Project being investigated by the FBI, P-9 union meatpackers during the Hormel strike in Austin, Minn., and members of Minnesota 33% (including future U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone), who fought to set up voter registration tables at a surplus-commodity distribution center in Anoka County.

Tilsen closed his law office in 1994, but didn’t give up his law license until about two years ago, his son said.

Other survivors include his longtime partner Connie Goldman; children Jocelyn, Judy, Daniel and Mark; more than 20 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren.

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